This editorial originally appeared in the May 24, 1991 issue of “Workers News,” newspaper of the Socialist Labour League.
The bloody assassination of Congress (I) leader and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi marks the end not only of the Nehru dynasty, but brings to a close a whole era in India’s political history. Furthermore, it reveals the literally incendiary character of world politics for, in the final analysis, the assassination of Gandhi is an expression of the breakdown of the entire postwar order of world capitalism.
Gandhi and 14 other people were killed on the evening of May 21 when a remote-controlled bomb was set off as he was about to address an election meeting at a town 30 miles to the south of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu state. Such was the force of the blast that Gandhi was only identified by his clothing.
The assassination took place in the final days of the most violent election in the 43-year history of Indian bourgeois democracy, amid the eruption of communal, national, religious and caste antagonisms. While the Congress Party under Gandhi had been favored to win the largest number of seats at the election, it had not been expected to command an overall majority, leading to a “hung” parliament and a deepening of the political crisis which has seen three governments in the past 18 months.
The assassination of Gandhi will accelerate the breakup of Congress and the further fracturing of India. With Gandhi dead, there does not exist a single bourgeois politician in India who can claim a national constituency that cuts across national, ethnic and caste lines.
Some 43 years after so-called independence, bereft of any program to advance the interests of the Indian masses, the Congress Party had become inseparably bound up with the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Desperately trying to hold the old order together, the corrupt bourgeois Congress chiefs gathered in New Delhi to appoint Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian-born widow Sonia, designated a “wife of the Nehru-Gandhi family,” as the new president of the party, without even asking whether she was willing to run. Initial reports indicate, however, that she has declined to place her head on the chopping block.
The assassination is the direct outcome of the deepening economic and social crisis wracking the country, and the breakdown of the mechanisms of rule established by the Indian bourgeoisie in collaboration with British imperialism under “independence” in 1947. All of the states of the subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, established in the postwar settlement are marked by deepening social conflicts.
In his first public response to the assassination, President George Bush said that he “did not know what the world is coming to.” It would strain credulity to accept that Bush, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, is shocked by the gruesome fate of Rajiv Gandhi. Indeed, well-informed sources were speculating on possible American involvement in the assassination and there can be no doubt that US imperialism, as is its custom, will seek to exploit the ensuing political instability to advance its own interests in the region. Only last month, the Bush administration took advantage of the catastrophic floods in neighboring Bangladesh to position American military forces, under the cover of “humanitarian concerns,” in the Bay of Bengal.
However, Bush’s impromptu reaction was not without a grain of sincerity. As the foremost guardian of US imperialism’s worldwide interests, Bush instinctively recognizes that the death of Gandhi signifies the destruction of yet another foundation of the post-World War II imperialist order.
At the center of the postwar order was the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent along religious lines, with the formation of the Moslem state of Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu state in India. This division reflected the complete incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to achieve genuine independence and resolve any basic democratic demands of the masses, because the achievement of these tasks requires the overthrow of the very capitalist property relations on which they themselves rest.
This is why the Indian national bourgeoisie, organized in the Congress Party under the leadership of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, employed the same divide-and-rule tactics developed by the British over centuries.
Whatever their differences, the fundamental unity between the British imperialists and the bourgeois Congress leaders was their fear that the anti-imperialist struggle would end in a victorious socialist revolution. Combining the mass movement led by Gandhi and nationalist program of Nehru—a so-called independent path of development couched in fake socialist rhetoric—the Congress Party devised a political mechanism for ensuring that the struggle of the multimillion Indian masses remained within the framework of capitalist rule, despite grinding poverty and oppression.
A crucial role in imposing this settlement was played by the Stalinists of the Indian Communist Party. Having opposed the Quit India movement in 1942 on the grounds that this would weaken “democratic” Britain in the struggle against Hitler, the Stalinists then swung their support behind Congress following the war, supporting the “progressive” national bourgeoisie led by Nehru and its alliance with the Soviet bureaucracy.
The postwar settlement began to break apart by 1971 with the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from Pakistan. Fearing that a revolutionary upsurge by one section of the divided Bengali nation threatened the very basis of the carve-up of the subcontinent by Congress and British imperialism, Indira Gandhi sent in troops under the guise of fighting for the “liberation” of Bangladesh.
Four years after this intervention, in 1975, the deepening social crisis at home saw Gandhi impose emergency rule and jail tens of thousands of workers in the railway strike. Splits developed in the Congress Party with Gandhi setting up her own Congress (I) Party—the I standing for Indira. When the emergency was lifted, the Congress was swept out of office in the election of 1977, bringing to power the Janata Party, made up of dissident Congress members and other bourgeois leaders under the leadership of Moraji Desai.
But Janata fell apart into warring bourgeois factions and Congress (I) was returned to office in 1980. The more the internal crisis deepened, the more Indira Gandhi began to drop the mask of secularism and turned to play the communalist card, promoting Hindu chauvinism against Sikh separatism. But Gandhi herself reaped the whirlwind of chauvinism, when she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards after sending in troops to attack the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar in June 1984.
Fearing the breakup of its chief mechanism of rule, the bourgeoisie placed Indira’s son, Rajiv, at the head of the party. He took office as prime minister at the end of 1984 when Congress swept to power in the elections held after his mother’s assassination.
But the economic and political program brought together by Nehru and Gandhi was being tom apart by the deepening class, national and communal conflicts. Just as the 1980s saw the collapse of the nationalist program of “socialism in one country” in the Stalinist-ruled countries, so the national economic self-sufficiency program of Congress disintegrated.
Gandhi dismantled the program of national industrialization. Under an IMF-dictated “export strategy”—a euphemism for removing all protectionist barriers to the operations of multinational corporations—he encouraged a small layer of capitalists and petty bourgeois to prosper, while the plight of the impoverished masses worsened, through soaring prices, closures and job destruction and a ruling class offensive on wages, conditions and unions.
The elections of 1989 revealed the incapacity of the Congress-Stalinist alliance to contain the social and class upheavals being fueled by the collapse of the old program, and the opening up of India to unfettered exploitation by world capitalism. Congress (I) lost more than half its 415 seats in the election and was forced out of office when the Stalinist parties rejected Gandhi’s appeal for their support.
Instead the Stalinists became a crucial prop for the National Front government of V.P. Singh. Supported from the “left” by the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party (Marxist), the Singh government was held up on the right by the extreme right-wing and fascist-oriented Hindu chauvinist Baratiya Janata Party (BJP).
The dramatic increase in representation for the BJP—from 2 to 97—showed that in conditions where its traditional party, Congress, was falling apart, growing sections of the Indian ruling class were looking to unleash fascist-style violence and communalism against the working class.
With only 144 seats out the 524-seat parliament, the Singh government made demagogic calls for the uplifting of the lower castes while pursuing the IMF-dictated program begun by Gandhi, thereby fueling intercommunal clashes. Singh had no real differences with Gandhi and had been his finance minister from 1984 to 1986. In a move aimed at reassuring big business, he appointed Devi Lal, a member of the powerful and rich Jat farmer-landlord caste and an ally of key industrialists, as deputy prime minister.
Whipping up Hindu chauvinism with the demands for a “greater India,” the BJP initiated intercommunal violence with its attempts to demolish a 16th century mosque in the city of Ayodhya and replace it with a Hindu temple. When the BJP’s leader, L.K. Advani, was arrested in the campaign, it withdrew its support from the Singh government, precipitating the parliamentary crisis.
Right to the bitter end, the Stalinists tried to keep the Singh government intact as the aging Communist Party (Marxist) Stalinist Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal, denounced the BJP as an “enemy of the people and society” but did not explain why his party had operated in a de facto coalition with the Hindu fascists.
In November 1990, the fraud of parliamentary democracy in India turned into high farce when the Singh government collapsed and one of the smallest groupings in the parliament, a 61-member split-off from Singh’s Janata Dal party, headed by his rival Chandra Shekhar, combined with the Congress Party in a no confidence vote. Gandhi refused to form a government, forcing the Indian president to call on Chandra Shekhar, with less than one-eighth of the parliamentary seats, to head the government.
The Indian bourgeoisie feared that a fresh election would unleash violent upheavals and clung to the Chandra Shekhar regime for as long as possible. Now the assassination of Gandhi has underlined the complete crisis of the parliamentary system and the mechanisms of bourgeois rule, bringing India to the brink of civil war.
Behind the political explosion lies the deepening crisis of Indian capitalism. Despite the so-called “export strategy” pursued by Gandhi and Singh, India’s share of the world market has fallen catastrophically from 1 percent to 0.5 percent over the last few years. Its foreign debt has risen from 10 percent of national income seven years ago to 30 percent today. The economy is now heading for a collapse with an acute shortage of foreign currency. Foreign exchange reserves are around $2.3 billion, less than a month’s worth of imports, the foreign debt is $80 billion and inflation stands at 16 percent.
The Persian Gulf war hit India particularly hard with its oil import bill rising by between 20 percent and 40 percent. The government responded by imposing a 25 percent increase in oil prices.
Unemployment has increased by more than 30 million in the cities and 100 million in the countryside, with at least 200,000 mills and factories shut down. Half the country’s 800 million people live below the official poverty line.
The Congress Party has dropped the policies of national self-sufficiency pursued under Nehru and then Indira Gandhi. It is promising to promote a capital market and, in rhetoric which could be taken straight from the Harvard Business School, calls for a “leaner, more dynamic and profit-oriented public sector.”
Four decades after so-called independence, the facade of the secular, democratic bourgeois state of India has been shattered. The collapse of the “independent” path of economic development in India, leading to the eruption of communal, caste and national divisions, is an expression of the pressure of the world economy on the outmoded nation-state system and the consequent breakdown of national economic programs in every comer of the globe.
There is only one force which can provide the way forward out of the blind alley created by bankrupt capitalism. Only the Indian working class, uniting behind it all the oppressed masses of the subcontinent, and allying itself with the international working class, can prevent the plunge into barbarism and achieve real independence from imperialism and genuine democracy by carrying through the socialist revolution and establishing the Socialist United States of the Indian Subcontinent. This is the program fought for by the Revolutionary Communist League, the Sri Lankan section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, together with the Indian Trotskyists of the Socialist Labour League.